In 2011, Books for Keeps highlighted rising stars in the world of picture book illustration. One of those was Grahame Baker-Smith, whose disturbing, edgily sophisticated illustrations impressed very much. Since then Grahame has won the Kate Greenaway Medal with Farther and developed his hauntingly evocative style. Now he has turned his attention to Wind in the Willows and here describes his approach and technique.
For me everything begins with drawing. It is how I make sense of everything – or at least try to. It underpins every illustration and is something I practice incessantly, in coffee shops, on the train, in the evening after work (actually, as an illustrator, there is no such thing as ‘after work!’) I used to do very loose, vague sketches but now they have become the place where I work out and try to, at least partly solve, some of the problems that every image will present. Composition and balance, light, shade, perspective, point of view, the focus of interest etc. It is a hugely enjoyable part of the process. I sometimes think it would be great to just make a book of nothing but drawings, to tell a story in that very basic and direct way.
Having worked out my drawing and scanned it into Photoshop, this is more or less the first ‘lay in’ of the colour. I keep it loose at this stage, pushing the colour around, looking for the main areas, the big shapes but not defining anything too much.
This stage is called ‘seeing what happens’ I try to let my hand move instinctively and not think too much or become precious about any mark. I also scan bits of abstract acrylic painted texture into the composition, placing them randomly and switching the layer modes on and off.
After a time, one has to begin to commit to some shapes. I’m also playing with the textures and edges, making some of them harder and letting others drop away. A lot of time is spent just looking and seeing how I feel about what is happening.
Things are definitely firming up a bit now but the decision-making process is endless! I got rid of the dark shape at the front of the comp. I liked it in the drawing but felt it was too oppressive for the nature of the scene which was ultimately supposed to be summery and light. Now I’m looking for a way to resolve that foreground space.
I’m still trying to get the foreground to work and, having deleted the idea that was in the sketch am basically on my own! There is a perverse joy in the frustration inherent in making pictures and there are times when you just have to keep going, keep working, pushing and pulling, painting-in, painting-out. The only guide is your experience and instinct and trusting in the process to get you there!
Which, thankfully, it eventually does. A picture always gets to the ‘turning point’. The stage at which you know it is working and, as long as you keep your nerve and don’t mess it up, the final stages are like rolling down a hill with a big smile on your face. It is just a joy to spend the day texturing, splashing bits of colour around, emphasising certain elements, knocking others back a bit and – most thrilling for me – playing with the light.
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith is published by Templar, 978 1 783708505, £14.99 hbk.